In the beginning there was Chez Camille, a bouillabaisse restaurant that since 1912 has sat on the water at one end of Pampelonne. Patrice de Colmont's father camped on the beach nearby in 1948, then bought a fisherman's house on the sand. When travelers passed, he and his wife would offer them hospitality. In 1955, Brigitte Bardot and her husband, director Roger Vadim, were shooting . . . And God Created Woman on the beach, and mistook the Colmonts' cabana for a bistro. The crew boss asked Madame Colmont if she would cook for the troupe. When filming ended, Bardot and Vadim stayed—and Club 55 was born, as an invitation-only restaurant for "the people we like," says Patrice, who was eight at the time. Over the years, more beach clubs opened: Moorea, Bora-Bora, Aqua, La Voile Rouge. Of course, St.-Tropez was already popular at the beginning of the 20th century, when it attracted Colette, Matisse, and the Prince of Wales, but it is the beach clubs that bring today's equivalent of royalty: P. Diddy, Claudia Schiffer, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Campbell.
To enjoy St.-Tropez you have to make some simple choices. Do you stay in town or in the country?Where will you eat dinner tonight?Which beach club will you choose today?And is it too early for a glass of rosé?As the millennium arrived, these well-worn rituals seemed threatened. La Voile Rouge, where topless sunbathing took off, was under siege. The raucous party there—where disco pumps into the afternoon, and almost as much champagne is poured over half-naked women as is swilled by them—had gone on too loudly for too long. A segment of the local population used these excesses to argue that all of Pampelonne's 31 beach clubs should be closed, calling them an insult to what was officially a "remarkable natural preserve."
You can't entirely blame them. In high season, 60,000 visitors a day clog the beaches, cafés, and 15th-century alleys of this old fishing village. In recent years the throngs, along with then-polluted seas and run-down hotels, had driven out the fashionable. By 1989, Bardot, the town's reigning celebrity, was heard to sneer that St.-Tropez had been "taken over by yobs."
Olivier Le Quellec, a real estate agent and president of the tourist board, compares St.-Tropez to a theater. "There are two kinds of people here—those at the podium and those in the chairs," he says. In 1998, he sold the house of Elton John's manager for $7 million, the highest price ever paid for a residence at that time. Real estate values promptly doubled. "When you have money people, you get fashion people and more hotels and restaurants," Le Quellec says. "And the quality goes up." So, too, does the level of backlash.
In March 2000, the mayor and council of the town of Ramatuelle, which controls Pampelonne Beach, refused to renew the license of Paul Tomaselli, owner of La Voile Rouge, and ordered the club razed. Then a government official leaped into the fray, demanding that all the clubs be shut down. (Club 55 and Tahiti, another of the first beach clubs, were exempt because they are on private property.)
A hue and cry arose, with supporters calling La Voile Rouge a monument to erotic freedom and Pampelonne a monument to France. That summer, Tomaselli opened his club in defiance of the town and was taken to court. After it was pointed out how many millions of dollars and how many jobs the beach clubs mean for Ramatuelle, he won a reprieve: La Voile Rouge would not be demolished.